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New faces at GOP convention could shape party's future

WASHINGTON — Ask a Maryland Republican for insight into the delegates who will represent the state at the party's presidential nominating convention in Cleveland this week, and the response amounts to a shrug.

"I was going through the list and I was like, 'Who are these people?'" said state Sen. Michael J. Hough of Frederick County. "Typically, it's the same old people. But Trump is bringing in new, fresh blood."

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Republican businessman Donald J. Trump will secure his party's nomination on the shores of Lake Erie this week in perhaps the most unorthodox political convention in a generation — one that will feature an underwear model and a soap opera star as speakers, but few party stalwarts.

In contrast with Democrats, who will gather in Philadelphia next week to nominate Hillary Clinton, Republicans won't hear from previous presidential nominees — Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate in 2012, is staying home, as are both Presidents Bush — or from many current elected officials.

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has struggled for months to square his own pragmatic brand of GOP politics with Trump's, isn't attending the convention. The state's most prominent Republican candidates for federal office, including Del. Kathy Szeliga, who is running for the state's open Senate seat, are also taking a pass.

But perhaps more compelling — and potentially more important for the future of the GOP in Maryland, and elsewhere — are the people gathering off stage in Cleveland: the delegates themselves. In Maryland, many of those Republicans are engaging directly with presidential politics for the first time by attending their first convention.

And they're doing it because of Trump.

"We haven't seen a person like Trump who has kind of flipped everything upside down," said Chris Yates, a 68-year-old retired federal worker from Laurel who will attend his first convention this week despite a recent cancer diagnosis. "He's not doing what you're supposed to do — he's not playing that game."

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Yates ran an unsuccessful campaign for the House of Delegates in 2014, but had previously steered clear of politics.

Laura M. Walsh, a Howard County woman who works at a law firm, said Trump is engaging voters who had felt left out of politics.

"I just feel he talks to a lot of common people, not political people," she said. "Let's just say more people need to get involved."

Other Republicans say Trump should have nothing to do with the future of the party. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor once considered a favorite to capture the GOP nod, says Trump is playing on an angry, fearful electorate.

"While he has no doubt tapped into the anxiety so prevalent in the United States today, I do not believe Donald Trump reflects the principles or inclusive legacy of the Republican Party," Bush wrote in an op-ed published this weekend in The Washington Post. "And I sincerely hope he doesn't represent its future."

The crop of relatively new voices in the state's 38-member delegation to Cleveland are making their debut at an inflection point for the state GOP, when conservative and anti-establishment forces have been slowly chipping away at the notion that the only path to success as a Republican in Maryland is as a centrist.

Hough, a conservative who unseated an 11-year veteran and member of his party's leadership in 2014, was viewed by many as a harbinger of that shift — though he won in a district that had been recently redrawn to include more Republicans.

Hough supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz during the presidential primary election, but said he is encouraged to see new faces getting involved in the party.

If Hough's win can be explained by redistricting, then a little-noticed intraparty election earlier this year may be more difficult to dismiss. In that race, David Bossie, head of the conservative group Citizens United, managed to unseat veteran Louis Pope as Maryland's point man to the Republican National Committee.

Bossie was chosen by a wide margin of party insiders just minutes after Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford gave an impassioned speech in support of Pope. Many Republicans note that Rutherford and Pope are personally close — and say Hogan's involvement was nil — but the optics of state Republicans soundly rejecting a candidate supported by Hogan's No. 2 are hard to write off.

It is into those potentially treacherous political crosscurrents that the new batch of Trump supporters is entering.

"You're seeing such a groundswell of new participation," said Ben Marchi, a 38-year-old Talbot County man who is also serving as a convention delegate for the first time. "It illustrates a generational shift that's occurred with not only the Republican Party here but also across the country."

During the primary campaign, Trump boasted frequently of bringing new Republicans into the fold, but the claim was not supported by exit polling. While turnout in primaries grew in some states, the data indicate that most of those voters had previously supported Republicans in general elections — they had just steered clear of primaries.

Trump captured 54 percent of the statewide vote in Maryland's April 26 primary. Republican turnout was at 46 percent, compared with 27 percent in 2012 primary.

"The numbers suggest that he's not really bringing new people in as much as he's invigorating some dormant primary voters," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "The question is, how much of a difference does that make in the general election?"

Another question is whether becoming a more conservative, anti-establishment party helps the GOP in a state such as Maryland, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by better than 2-1. Hogan and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the last Republican to win a statewide election before Hogan, were successful in part because they avoided the divisive rhetoric in which Trump has reveled.

Hogan, one of two GOP governors nationwide who has said he will not vote for Trump, won in off-presidential election year, when fewer Democrats showed up to the polls. A challenge for party leaders will be to capture the energy Trump has created and somehow translate that into Hogan's 2018 re-election bid — despite Hogan's distaste for their candidate.

"Every time you have new influx of people coming into the party it's always a good thing," said Diana Waterman, chairwoman of the state GOP. "My hope ... is that even if we're not successful this year that they will stay [because] we're already working on 2018."

Alirio Martinez Jr., a Montgomery County man attending his first national convention, said he intends to remain involved even if Trump loses in November. Martinez, born in El Salvador, backed President Barack Obama in 2008, but switched his radio to the AM dial by accident one day and began listening to conservative talk radio.

"I realized I was on the wrong side," he said.

He ran for and won a spot on the Republican Central Committee in Montgomery County a few years ago and never looked back.

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"I'd be disappointed" if Clinton won, he said, "but I'm not going to give up."

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